Leadership

SETTING PRIORITIES:2x2 GRID SHORTCUT

This blog is about doing things right and doing the right things. In a world of complexity, constant change, huge workloads, and intense pressure to perform, it is very difficult to maintain focus and stay clear on your priorities.

This blog will review a great technique for setting priorities and then show you a little short cut that can save you time while reaping all the benefits.

How the 2×2 grid works:

This technique is useful when you are trying to prioritize a list of action items—projects, tasks, objectives, or whatever. The question is: Which projects are most important and which should be tackled first; in what order should we tackle these projects?

Instructions:

First, brainstorm all of your potential action items (your goals, projects, or priorities). You can start gathering ideas before the meeting, of course.

Then draw a big box on a flip chart and divide it into four quadrants. Label the X axis “Difficulty” (or Effort) and the Y axis “Importance” (or Impact). This gives you four possibilities:

  1. Important and easy
  2. Important and difficult
  3. Unimportant and easy
  4. Unimportant and difficult

Finally, divide all of your major projects into the four quadrants by plotting them on the 2×2 grid. This tells you what your priorities are:

  1. Important & easy: Do these quick wins (low hanging fruit) first or second.
  2. Important & difficult: Do these major projects first or second, as possible & appropriate.
  3. Unimportant & easy: Do these third; pick them off when you have time.
  4. Unimportant & difficult: Postpone until they become more relevant.

I like Dave Gray’s little diagram (below), except that I disagree with him on this point: I take the projects in the top right quadrant to be high priority projects, not “maybe” projects. Everything that is really important has to be put in the plan for action—not just the quick wins and low hanging fruit.

Setting Priorities

General rule:

If your team has a good track record of execution then you can attack quick wins and the more challenging projects at the same time. You can do them in whatever order makes sense to you; whatever order is required by the situation.

If, however, your team is not very good at getting things done, then it can be helpful to pick off a bunch of quick wins to build some confidence and momentum before you try to tackle some of the more challenging projects.

When I coach people on prioritizing skill development goals, I argue that there are two places to start. Start with your most important opportunities for improvement, unless there are a few small things you need to clean up before you tackle the big items.

Big headache:

What I have found over the years is that teams waste hours debating where they should plot items on the graph in relation to each other. “Should this project be higher or lower than that other project; nudged to the left or right…?” Most of those discussions are a complete waste of time.

The shortcut:

Plotting action items directly onto the 2×2 grid is often awkward and contentious. Here is an easier way to get all the benefits from the 2×2 method:

First, analyze and rate each of your projects in terms of difficulty, i.e., divide them into two separate lists: (1) Easier and (2) More Difficult. Completely ignore the question of importance at this stage. By difficulty, we mean complexity, scale, the effort and resources it will take to get the job done. When you are done, review your two lists, and move any items that fit better on the other list.

Then rate all of the projects again, this time in terms of importance, i.e., divide them into two separate lists: (1) Mission Critical (Most Important) and (2) Nice To Do (Less Important). Completely ignore the question of difficulty at this stage. This analysis is all about the relative importance, urgency, and potential impact of your projects. When you are done, review your two lists, and move any items that fit better on the other list.

Finally, plot all of the projects on a 2×2 grid. This is not essential but the visual is helpful.

Voila, you have your priorities.

Other factors and decisions:

The discussions you have with your team around “difficulty” and “importance” are extremely valuable. They will help your team surface assumptions, test ideas, identify gaps in data (where more research is necessary), and build understanding, consensus, buy-in, and commitment.

After rating all of your projects by importance, I recommend reviewing the list again to ensure you are not sacrificing the important to the urgent. Covey explains this principle in 7 Habits, “Put First Things First” (Habit #3). It is crucial to make time for what is strategically important, and not get stuck always/only putting out fires (dealing with the urgent).

If all (or most) of your projects are truly “mission critical” you can do one of two things: either force yourself to bump a few items down on the list, or secure additional resources so that you can tackle more big projects at the same time. If neither of these strategies work, then you have no choice but to force yourself to decide on the order in which you will tackle your mission critical items: “These are all critically important; we have to start somewhere; where are we going to start?” I also find this simple question useful: “Of all of these crucial projects, what do we really need to do first?”

Series:

This is part of a four part series on prioritizing and alignment:

  1. Setting priorities: 2×2 grid shortcut
  2. Aligning goals with organizational objectives
  3. Aligning teams
  4. Auditing your priorities

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